The extractive industries bring jobs and tax revenues to a nation that has been hobbled by invasion, war and insurgency for close to two decades. Yet this economic activity comes at a cost.
Oil spills, pollution and declining air quality have taken a significant toll on the environment, and on the health of many Iraqis. On top of this, greenhouse gas emissions from the oil industry continue to contribute to global warming. Some areas of Iraq are even expected to become uninhabitable in the coming decades.
Yet assessing the true scale of the issue and exactly how pollution happens in Iraq is a demanding task. When applying for the Green Climate Fund in 2019, the Iraqi government together with the UN Environment Program, outlined insufficient collection of environmental data as a challenge to implementing policies countering climate change. Precise information around the sources and impact of pollution on many Iraqi communities also remains sparse, despite the best efforts of local researchers.
We have selected two oil rich regions of Iraq, Basra in the south and Iraqi Kurdistan in the north of the country, to show how open source techniques can help gauge and discover pollution related to the oil industry.
The general methods outlined should be broadly transferrable to other countries and oil-producing regions. However, it must be noted that an array of stresses unique to Iraq, not least its tumultuous recent history, create a set of conditions that will seldom be replicated elsewhere.
Still, readers and researchers are encouraged to experiment with the tools and techniques detailed below.
- Using open-source data on flaring and remote sensing tools to build a better understanding of air pollution related to the oil industry
- Harnessing services such as Google Earth Engine alongside machine learning tools to track oil industry activities and impacts
- Mapping potential environmental hotspots using freely available satellite imagery and open-source data combined with mapping tools.
What the data shows is how pollution in Iraq can be visualised as well as persistent issues with oil wastes and dumps in the vicinity of refineries.
Mapping the SceneTo begin with this type of research, it is first important to identify where oil infrastructure is located, the type of chemicals to look for and the areas that may be impacted by pollution.
Mapping services can help with the first part of this endeavour, as can historic reports.
For example, the below diagram from a 2008 US Congressional document helpfully details Iraq’s main pipelines and oil fields.
Wikimapia is a particularly useful source in this regard as it allows users to search for locations relating to categories of industry. For the purposes of this exercise, we are looking for “oil and gas industry” facilities in Iraq.
Choosing the right base layer option for your project can be important as some mapping services offer more up to date coverage of specific regions. For example, Bing appears to have more recent imagery relating to Iraq than Google.
Next, however, we’ll need to familiarise ourselves with tools that allow us to monitor pollution. Some of these also use satellite and mapping technology, but others entail tapping into networks of publicly available sensory data.
By combining these monitoring tools with the mapping platforms detailed above, we will eventually be able to discover and visualise pollution in a way that can help us begin to understand its extent and impact.
Taking OSINT to the Air
A number of useful publicly available tools can enable researchers to gauge the likes of pollution and air quality at locations around the world.
While not all of those detailed below will be relevant to the question of pollution in Iraq, highlighting a few more than is immediately necessary to give an idea of what is possible remains a worthwhile exercise.
Air Quality Index
The Air Quality Index (AQI) uses a network of hundreds of ground-based sensors to measure the levels of five major pollutants (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, PM2.5, ozone and carbon monoxide) at various locations around the world. The table below provides a description of the sources and health effects associated with three of these pollutants that are particularly relevant to Iraq.
Baghdad’s poor air quality is a legacy of conflict. Because Iraq’s energy infrastructure has been decimated by successive wars, private diesel generators make up around 30% of Iraq’s electricity supply. These generators produce up to 60 times more air pollution than gas plants per one megawatt produced. In cities such as Baghdad, one study found a single neighbourhood can have over 600 diesel generator units.
Although the global network of AQI monitoring stations provides a standardised and intuitive way of assessing air quality, there are significant gaps in coverage (as emphasised by there being just one AQI station in Iraq). These ground-based stations are typically operated by local environmental protection agencies, and only measure air quality in the direct vicinity of the sensor. Many countries simply do not publish AQI data.
The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) solves some of these issues by providing open-source meteorological data that includes satellite-derived measurements of a wide array of pollutants, including all constituents of the AQI.
The high temporal resolution and global coverage of CAMS data makes it an invaluable tool for the monitoring of both routine pollution and environmental terrorism. For example, on 20 October, 2016, retreating ISIS militants set fire to a sulphur processing facility in Al-Mishraq. The resulting plume of sulphur dioxide rivalled that of a volcanic eruption, killing two civilians and hospitalising at least 1,000 more, according to reports. The timelapse below (created using the QGIS open source geographic information system) visualises global SO2 levels for the month of October 2016 from the CAMS archive:
Because many significant sources of air pollution also emit light, images of the earth taken at night can help track pollution. Night-time images from NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) allow for the quick identification of major sources of air pollution including urban areas, highways, wildfires, and gas flaring – a particularly harmful practice where gas bubbles present in oil are burned off and released via a flame that rises above oil platforms, emitting a number of pollutants in the process.
The timelapse of VIIRS imagery below spans five years (2013-2018) in one-month increments, focusing on Northern Iraq. This time period was chosen to highlight the fall and recapture of Mosul — as is depicted by the darkening of lights around the city between 2014 and 2017 — but VIIRS data are available up to the present day. Beyond highlighting light from cities, villages, and roads, VIIRS imagery makes the spatial distribution of oil infrastructure immediately clear. The rows of bright spots stretching south from Erbil are methane flares located along the supergiant Kirkuk Oilfield (shown above in the map of Iraq’s oil infrastructure).
VIIRS data is instrumental in the tracking of air pollution. The SkyTruth Flaring Map uses VIIRS to estimate the volume of gas flared by wells around the world based on their individual heat signatures. The Islamic State’s burning of the Qayyarah oil fields in 2018, another massive source of air pollution, is also visible in the timelapse above.
Though VIIRS enables the identification of sources of air pollution such as flaring or oil fires, it doesn’t directly measure the scale of emissions. For that, we can turn to the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P (S5-P) satellite, which collects data on a range of pollutants including nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and carbon monoxide.
Sentinel-5P measures the amount of pollution found in a vertical column between the ground and the cruising altitude of most planes. Though they are highly correlated, this doesn’t directly reflect pollution in the air we breathe (surface pollution), because plumes of smoke can be carried high up. However, S5-P provides some of the highest resolution measurements of airborne pollutants available to the public and has a one-day revisit time, enabling the tracking of emissions from individual oil wells, power plants, or factories. The only catch is that it’s a relatively new satellite, with imagery only available from mid 2018 onwards.
By using Sentinel-5P in conjunction with night-time lights imagery, we can pinpoint sources of air pollution. We can even get an idea of the number of people exposed to pollution by observing the overlap between NO2 clouds and urban areas. The timelapse below shows weekly Nitrogen Dioxide levels across Iraq in 2020, overlaid over night-time lights.
Case Study: Iraqi KurdistanBringing together some of the techniques described above, let’s now try to see what we can discover about pollution relating to oil production in Iraq.
Using AQI data we have already been able to establish that values for particulate matter (PM2.5) in Baghdad are regularly as high as they were in San Francisco during the worst recorded wildfire season in California’s history. But what about other Iraqi regions where AQI data is not available?
In Iraqi Kurdistan, a resource-rich region in the north of the country, with an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of proven gas reserves, we have a handy head start. A very helpful map on the regional government’s website details sites where the main refineries, power stations and pipelines are located and who controls them.
SkyTruth, and its pinpointing of oil and gas flaring sites, is another source of useful information.
The sulphur content of the oil from the Kurdistan region is also particularly high.
This shows there were 190 sources of flaring during this time period with over 19.5 billion cubic meters of gas flared.
It is important to note, however, that SkyTruth data can contain double or triple points for some locations given a quirk of the data gathering process. The true total is likely less than 190 but the total of 19.5 billion cubic meters of gas flared remains consistent given SkyTruth still detects the same amount of heat released irrespective of its location.
We can look to answer this question by combining VIIRS imagery with Sentinel-5p data on NO2 produced around the sites that SkyTruth and various mapping services and resources have helped us identify.
Significant amounts of NO2 appear to drift towards the cities of Mosul, Erbil and Kiruk.
Despite changing wind directions, plumes of NO2 appear to consistently originate around the Khurmala Refinery south of Erbil. Bellingcat reached out to the operators of the refinery to ask about this by email but did not receive a response before publication.
One particular flaring location appears to be situated next to a residential area in the north east of Kirkuk. It can be geolocated here from this video posted on social media posted by a Kurdish-Dutch activist who visited the site in late December 2020.
The red squares in the image below show what could be fires or flares detected by FIRMS in the Kashe industrial district in north west Dohuk.
To detect fires, we need to use Sentinel Hub’s False Color (urban) band setting. This particular setting uses a near-infrared band as part of its composition that picks up heat signatures.
In the (below) Sentinel-2 image from March 17, 2021, we can see what appear to be flares populating the same rough locations as pinpointed by the FIRMS data.
The photos embossed over the Sentinel Hub image above were taken from Zoom.Earth on 14 August 2018. This obviously shows that flaring has been carried out at these locations for a number of years.
Flaring, of course, is far from the only source of pollution in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Attacks on oil installations by Islamic State have resulted in oil wells being burned.
Oil spillages have also been documented around many small refineries at industrial locations causing local hotspots of pollution.
Detecting the signs of such spillages is possible using satellite imagery.
When doing so, there are a few key items that can act as visual clues. Distinctive storage tankers, as seen (coloured red) in the image below at a location, which was shut down in 2018, are one such item.
However, it is important to keep in mind that not all images will include such detail or even that tanks visible via satellite imagery will be used for storing oil. Thus, it is important to check other sources for confirmation.
Let’s take another satellite image from the Kashe industrial district near Dohuk taken from Zoom.Earth in 2018.
The below satellite image, taken roughly 900 meters away, shows another refinery in the same district. Oil spills appear visible close to the red tankers visible within the marked area.
Fortunately, a drone image of the same refinery in the image immediately above was uploaded to Google Maps in March this year provides a closer view of the aforementioned storage tanks.
Oil can be seen leaking through the wall and trickling into a stream along the side of a dirt road.
Planet Labs imagery shows the pond being constructed in April 2020.
While this is far better than dumping waste or allowing it to form into streams, open air pits can still pose environmental risks, depending on how they have been constructed. Heavy rain can even lead to them overflowing.
To further verify these findings, we contacted local journalists to see if they could build upon this research with some on the ground reporting in this district.
They visited the locations we highlighted in mid-March 2021 and shared several images of oil spillages pouring out of refineries.
Using open-source tools we have also been able to show oil spillages occurring at refineries in one industrial district near Dohuk. The same methods can be transferred to analyse other areas of concern in Iraq and beyond. The analysis we have been able to undertake also supports the work and reports of local researchers and academics who have long warned of the damaging impact of pollution from oil industry facilities in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Case Study II: BasraBasra is Iraq’s second largest city and home to over four million inhabitants. In 2018, Iraq’s President designated it Iraq’s “economic capital”, largely owing to the vast quantities of oil extracted from the surrounding oilfields.
Studies have found hazardous levels of most major airborne pollutants are common in Basra. While local communities have raised concerns over the health impacts of the flaring.
Though many of the international companies that operate these fields have made public commitments to reduce flaring, the volume carried out around Basra remains significant.
According to SkyTruth, the volume of gas flared within a 70km radius of Basra in 2018 exceeded the total flaring volume of Saudi Arabia, China, Canada, and India combined. Iraq’s flaring volume increased in 2019 and stayed roughly constant in the first quarter of 2020.
Shell estimated in 2009 that the wasted gas from flaring in Iraq could produce 3,500 megawatts per day — roughly 70% of of the country’s daily energy production. Data collected by the DMSP satellite (the precursor to VIIRS) shows night time lights signatures from the oil fields rising sharply in 2009, likely indicating an increase in flaring activity. More recent data from SkyTruth shows heat signatures from these oilfields remaining constant in the years since 2018.
These flares are also configured in a long row to the west of Basra, directly upwind of the city. Images captured by Sentinel-5p show the Nitrogen Dioxide from these flares being carried east by the wind, blanketing Basra in pollution.
While the changing wind direction creates long streaks of NO2, emissions can be seen consistently originating around North Rumaila. The graphic below highlights some of the likely sources.
Yet in North Rumaila, the four degassing stations and NGL plant are in close proximity to each other. Though wind directions frequently change, the prevailing winds consistently blow the pollution from North Rumaila Eastward towards Basra; plumes of NO2 can be seen stretching hundreds of kilometers in Sentinel-5p readings, often over the city itself. Bellingcat reached out to both ROO and BGC by email to ask about flaring at these sites but did not receive a response before publication.
To understand what these colourful Sentinel-5p images look like on the ground, consider the images below, taken by local AFP photojournalist Hussein Faleh Raheem.
Although the local oil industry has long stated its commitment to improved environmental protection, polluting practices are likely to impact public health and the environment. A recent epidemiological study found that cancer rates in Basra have increased by 30% since 2005. A similar study in Texas– another location in which BP conducts extensive flaring — found that women living in proximity to gas flares were 50% more likely to give birth preterm.
Though there are likely many other factors contributing to the rise in cancer cases in Basra itself, such figures are clearly concerning and emphasise the need for further research of the role of air pollution.
Like in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, this is only one factor contributing to environmental damage in and around Basra.
In our previous Bellingcat article on pollution in Basra’s Shatt Al-Arab, we documented a number of oil spills in the region.
A 2019 UN Environment Programme report on the state of Iraq’s oil industry, meanwhile, noted that old and poorly maintained oil pipelines across the country were leading to spillages that were having a significant impact on the livelihoods and health of Iraqi communities as well as natural ecosystems.
Such spillages certainly seem apparent around Basra.
A quick scan with high-resolution satellite imagery from 2018 and 2019 available via Zoom.Earth shows numerous open-air storage pits and pipeline spills at the various oil fields west of the city.
Below, the model identifies what appears to be polluted land in the West Qurna oil field at Degassing Station 8, operated by ExxonMobil. Calls by Bellingcat to the regional media offices of ExxonMobil to ask about the land highlighted here went unanswered.
In North Rumaila, a similarly diverse array of polluted areas appear to be visible.
Rather, they are areas that give off a similar spectral and textual profile as the polluted areas that the model was trained on. Again, many of these points are oil wastewater storage pits or sand blackened by flaring, while others might be false positives such as roads or dark water ponds.
To verify whether there is indeed pollution at a location indicated by the model, we can check against the Sentinel-2 basemap and conduct further research.
Several points are clustered along the Basra Oil Terminal Pipeline, which originates at the North Rumaila complex and terminates at the southern port city of Al-Faw. Leaks from this pipeline have been a longstanding problem, and several oil spills were recently verified on the ground near the pipeline’s terminus in this brief thread.
Below, the algorithm identifies another cluster of potentially contaminated areas around the Shuaiba refinery and the Basra Oil Terminal Pipeline.
Again, it is important to be clear that not all points predicted by the model are actually pollution. Some notable mistakes made by the algorithm include these swamps in Az Zubair, which are not in fact huge oil spills, or open-air wastewater ponds.
Removing these false positives, numerous points appear clustered around refineries and oil infrastructure particularly in the Rumaila and West Qurna oil fields. Even though many of these oil facilities are located in the deserts and marshes outside of Basra city, open-air storage pits and spills can still have a damaging environmental impact.
The expansion of the oil industry at Rumaila and the marshes of West Qurna could be a serious threat to Iraq’s fragile biodiversity, as noted by Birdlife International. Hundreds of migrating birds recently landed in an oil waste lake which they mistook for water. The algorithm detects 58 likely instances of ground pollution in the marshland of West Qurna.
Again, open-source documentation through sensors and optic, public available imagery supports documenting the massive air, water and soil pollution problems in a systematic way that helps building a strong risk profile for nearby communities.
This should support accountability of the oil sector and government in dealing with these structural pollution problems.
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